A voice of reason in a cloudy landscape

David Abramowski

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Every heard of GreenLight Greater Portland?  Don’t worry, I hadn’t really known of it until Rick Turoczy at Silicon Florist graciously invited me to hang out with a few other start-up types and invade the suit and tie world of economic development.  The annual meeting was held on June 11th at the Portland Art Museum.  The Greenlight organization is a private sector led economic development initiative.  According to their website:

Greenlight’s mission is to promote the greater Portland-Vancouver MSA to bring good companies and jobs to the region and to support and grow the diverse businesses that have made their home here.

As I descended the grand stairs to the ballroom I knew I was going to be out of my element all day long.  Black suits, power skirts and lapel pins filled the overlapping chairs wall to wall.  Several hundred people were in attendance for this second annual gathering to discuss regional economics and the city of Portland’s new economic development strategy.

The main attraction of the morning discussion was the introduction of the City’s new economic development strategy by Mayor Sam Adams.  Sam opened by getting the room to pledge that Portland would not be the last city to exit the recession.  He then boldly announced that the new economic development strategy would yield 10,000 new jobs to the Portland area over the next 5 years.  Rightly the Mayor explained that unless the city’s economy was strong and thriving, we would not be able to fund the quality of life that has come to be expected here.  He explained how 5 years worth of projects have been fast tracked to be completed  over the next 24 months.  He discussed the dismal 30% unemployment rate in the construction trade and explained how the city has helped to streamline the permitting process and how they are extending building permits to help companies get back to work once the funds started moving again.

As Mayor Adams began to introduce the strategic economic development plan he said that the city must focus on the opportunities for the greatest growth.  Then he made a back handed comment that I’m sure won’t be much appreciated by the likes of Stumptown, Widmer or Bridgeport.  He said “We can’t all buy and sell beer and coffee to each other and maintain our quality of life.”  Mr. Mayor, I know you were trying to be funny – but these companies actually employ people, they pay mortgages and they put kids through school.  Please show a little respect for companies who call Portland home.

The mayor then introduced Erin Flynn who discussed the strategic development plan.  She talked about the focus on four industries: Cleantech, Advanced Manufacturing, Software and Activewear.  As the discussion continued it was apparent that the focus was on trying to convince big companies to bring jobs to Portland.  There were two offshoots to the plan that talked about Urban Innovation and Neighborhood Business Vitality discussing green building initiatives and “20 minute neighborhoods” where residents can have reliable access to goods and services.

Erin then showed a video about why Portland is such a great place to locate a company or to re-invest in existing companies.  Throughout these discussions a common theme emerged.  In the marketing materials that hype up Portland, the economic development teams are not shy to use Portland’s creative community as a draw.  The materials and videos talk about how creatives like software developers, graphic artists and open source communities all have gravitated to Portland because of it’s “cool” factor.

As the rest of the plan was revealed and the city talked about building a “living” building, investing in workforce development and expanding exports, there was no discussion of helping the cottage industry of creative types or entrepreneurs and start ups.

When the floor was opened for Q&A, Eva Schweber asked a very pointed question about the lack of discussion around the tech community and support for building on that community.   As the speaker on stage looked into the sky for help, Mayor Adams stood up and took the microphone to respond.  His response was short and to the point.  The plan did not provide for the strengthening or incubation of the Portland indie tech community.  I’m sure that as Eva walked back to her seat she was a bit disappointed because of the expectations that were set during a meeting with Mayor back on May 18th. During that meeting the group was very positive that the Mayor understood the opportunity and they felt that they had gained the support from the city to help bolster the tech community.

The rest of the day continued on discussing clean tech and the future impact of stronger higher education system.  The day was then summarized with a luncheon that introduced the 2009 Greater Portland Prosperity Index which provides a plethora of statistics and information on the Portland regional area.   The report was informative and helped to put Portland in perspective to the rest of the country.

Overall the day was informational for this entrepreneur to experience how the city & the suits view their best opportunities for growth.  From the strategic plan and discussions there is great emphasis on enticing companies to expand or relocate to the Portland region.  They are looking to re-train the workforce to fit the needs of those they are pursuing. And there is a desire to attempt to make Portland a centerpiece in the world’s green technology movement.    Some of these goals are tangible and others are just theory.  All in all, I wasn’t moved by the overall plan.

For me it seems the Portland city strategists are missing an obvious opportunity to incubate and encourage the tech community.  Portland already has a substantial base of information workers.  In that group there are entrepreneurs and leaders that have the potential to build the next $100M software company or dozens of $10M software companies.

Even the smallest of software companies create an ecosystem by not only employing workers at higher than average wages, but they also use services from providers like the independent graphic artists or the specialized iPhone programmers.  By fostering a tightly knit tech community the city could effectily help to keep money moving throughout the veins of the Portland region on an ongoing basis.

As the strategic plans progresses to the execution stage my hope is that the city decides to re-align some of their activities to foster growth in the indie tech scene.  As an entrepreneur creating a started called MioWorks, I know it’s up to me to build a business, drive revenue and become profitable quickly.  I would hope that the city can see that they have the opportunity to help foster the tech community so that startups and creatives can easily connect to one another, have access to other businesses to help generate revenue quicker and that they have a fair chance at attracting angel or venture capital financing.

I’m still optimistic that the Portland tech community and the independent creatives will figure out a way to band together and leverage our collective talents.  It’s just unfortunate that the City and Economic Development teams don’t see that potential. So my final report on GreenLight Greater Portland, is that they just don’t see a place for start-ups in their overall plan.

Posted in Sofware Startup Tagged: economic development strategy, economic strategy, GreenLight, Greenlight greater portland, pdx, Portland, startup

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More Stories By David Abramowski

David Abramowski is a technologist turned product leader. David was a co-founder of Morph Labs, one of the first Platform as a Service plays on AWS. He was the GM for Parallels Virtuozzo containers, enterprise business, and most recently he is the leader of the product marketing team for the IT Operations Management solutions at the hyper growth SaaS company, ServiceNow.